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Why U.S. cities need to learn from Copenhagen—fast

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By 2025, the Danish capital will be the first city to eliminate fossil fuels. American cities need to do the same

Within a decade, Copenhagen will be the first major city to declare carbon neutrality.
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The Green New Deal, a proposal for the country to wean itself off fossil fuels within a decade, was shot down in the U.S. Senate yesterday after a series of truly bizarre arguments. But the most preposterous one came from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who said it just wouldn’t work for every U.S. city.

“The proposal addresses the small matter of eliminating the use of all fossil fuels nationwide in a 10-year time frame,” McConnell told reporters on Tuesday. “This might sound like a neat idea in places like San Francisco or New York, the places that the Democratic Party seems totally focused on these days. But communities practically everywhere else would be absolutely crushed.”

Despite widespread support from constituents, the Green New Deal has been dubbed impossible by Congressional Republicans for similar reasons, and even some Democrats won’t back the plan. Democratic presidential candidate John Hickenlooper cast his own doubt upon the proposal in an op-ed this week. “We do not yet have the technology needed to reach ‘net-zero greenhouse gas emissions’ in 10 years,” he wrote.

But we do actually have the technology. And we do know that it is possible for U.S. cities, large and small, to achieve this goal, because we have a very good model to learn from: Copenhagen.

Within ten years—actually, the goal is 2025, so six—the Danish capital is on track to be the first major city to achieve not just net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, but also carbon neutrality. That means that even if the city does still use fossil fuels, it will offset those emissions or generate more renewable energy than it consumes.

What’s most remarkable is that nearly all of this change has happened just in the last few decades. As recently as the 1970s, Copenhagen was a polluted, heavily industrialized port city. Thanks to major investments in green infrastructure, much like the Green New Deal calls for, emissions have dropped by half since the early 2000s.

Those energy savings are also being passed along to Copenhagen residents. A couple living in an apartment will save an average of 4,000 Danish kroner (about $600) per year once the city achieves carbon neutrality, according to Jörgen Edström, head of strategy for Copenhagen’s utility company HOFOR.

“The municipality didn’t say, ‘Spend all the money to achieve the carbon-neutral agenda.’ They said, ‘We want lower prices and we want carbon neutrality,’” Edström told Reuters.

A recent New York Times article noted that the biggest challenge Copenhagen Mayor Frank Jensen is currently facing is how to wean residents off fossil-fuel powered cars. About 40 percent of all residents now commute by cycling, and bikes outnumber cars in the city center. But one-third of the city’s emissions are from transportation—and as in the U.S., Copenhagen’s transportation emissions keep going up. Officials hope a nearly completed subway that will put virtually all residents within a half-mile of transit will help.

It’s also important to note that Copenhagen is not very similar to a large megalopolis like New York or San Francisco. It’s a smaller city of just over 600,000 people. It has more in common with dozens of U.S. cities across the country like Detroit, El Paso, Oklahoma City, and, a place that McConnell represents, Louisville, Kentucky.

But Copenhagen’s success is contingent on a secret weapon. Its population density is many magnitudes greater than of U.S. cities similar in population size. And Copenhagen is adding even more new places to live to its city center.

By some estimates, the U.S. could get halfway to reaching the climate goals stated in the Paris agreement just by densifying its cities.

Earlier this week, a New York Times op-ed by California state Sen. Scott Wiener and UC Berkeley energy professor Daniel Kammen argued for thinking about housing density as a local climate solution.

“Unlike many of our climate policy challenges, housing and transit are largely controlled by cities and states,” Wiener and Kammen write. “If we can build more momentum for more homes near transit and jobs, we can continue to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in California and around the country, and make sure our progress continues apace.”

Cities are the key to reducing emissions. They both consume the majority of the country’s fossil fuels and create the majority of the country’s emissions. Even if only a handful of U.S. metropolitan areas eliminated their use of fossil fuels within 10 years, the effect would be life-altering for tens of millions of people, and serve as a model for other cities to follow suit.

What’s more, it’s already happening. Emissions have already peaked in 27 global cities, including the U.S. cities of Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Portland, Washington D.C., and, yes, San Francisco and New York.

McConnell’s idea that “communities practically everywhere else would be absolutely crushed” might be the best way to describe what will happen if all U.S. cities don’t quickly invest in infrastructure that can greatly reduce emissions—and their devastating impacts.